Wednesday 18 November 2020 1:56 pm

Hillbilly Elegy film review: Netflix Oscar-bait falls flat

James is one of City A.M.'s film critics and a regular on both TV and radio discussing the latest movie releases

This awards season may see Netflix get its clearest run yet at the coveted Best Picture Oscar, with the streamer’s output thriving in the wake of cinemas shutting down. But while there are contenders in its catalogue, it’s doubtful Ron Howard’s new drama Hillbilly Elegy will give voters any trouble. 

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Based on a memoir of the same name, Hillbilly Elegy tells the story of J.D. Vance (Gabriel Basso). Raised in Ohio but with strong Kentucky roots, he fights prejudice and financial restraints to try and make it to a prestigious college. On the eve of a big interview, he gets a call to say his mother Bev (Amy Adams) has suffered a heroin overdose. 

As he races across the country to try and help his mother, he reflects on his childhood. Bev’s addictions and mistreatment cast a long shadow, but so does the bond he feels with his Hill Country roots, and his doting grandmother Memaw (Glenn Close) who tries to prepare J.D. to make a better future for himself. 

Rather than lean into the grimness of the situation, Howard crafts a homely American opening, with kids cycling in the dirt, a pleasant soundtrack and a nostalgic voiceover (“ask me where I feel most at home, and that’s the Hill Country”). You could be watching Fried Green Tomatoes or Driving Miss Daisy, if Jessica Tandy had played an abusive drug addict. 

The tone of the film is so misjudged that moments designed to inspire or move you just draw out laughter. Bev’s slide into addiction is portrayed by Adams roller skating through a hospital to Bananarama’s Cruel Summer. Mamaw’s life lesson to J.D. is that “everyone in this world one of three kinds: a good Terminator, a bad Terminator, and neutral”. We may spend the rest of this year pondering what a neutral Terminator is meant to be. 

A better film than Hillbilly Elegy would have delved deeper into these characters, not simply turned the melodrama up so high that everyone resembles the Deep South stereotype the story is supposed to subvert.

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Adams puts her all into Bev, but we never really understand her. A flashback is wedged in to give some kind of context to her struggles, but this case for the defence is all too brief. When the audience’s predominant experience of her is swearing at nurses and hitting children, pity is hard to muster. There’s no glimmer of redemption, no sense that this person can be saved. There’s no sense of a person there at all, really, only the addiction and its impact on J.D.’s future. 

Basso is intriguing as a man essentially wondering whether to cut his mother loose to save his future, while Frieda Pinto has a frustratingly slight role as his girlfriend. In the past, Owen Asztalos gives the young J.D. some dimension, but it’s co-star Close that rises to the top. She’s almost unrecognisable as she becomes a force of nature, swearing in between drags of her cigarette and giving a sense of history to this dysfunctional clan. It’s grubby, but the highlight of Hillbilly Elegy is watching Memaw weigh up whether to save her grandchild or give her daughter another chance. 

Every year there’s a film that was clearly intended as Oscar-bait. Hillbilly Elegy doesn’t just fall short, it nosedives, as quality actors are left to wrestle with mawkish dialogue and a misjudged tone. What a horrid waste of strong material, and a stellar cast.  

Hillbilly Elegy is available on Netflix from November 24th.

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